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Trip 23 -- Diners of New Jersey Walk

Day 13: Sea Isle City to Wildwood (Star Diner & Café)
Tuesday, October 27, 2020

Today: 32424 steps/26.26 km/16.32 mi/4h 53m
Total: 468761 steps/375.64 km/233.41 mi/73h 24m

Today on "Good Day Philadelphia" we are introduced to the types of Zoom attendee. There's the lurker, who doesn't keep the camera on, and that's not necessarily a bad thing -- "Makes you focus on the words," says Alex. There's the pirate, who hijacks the conversation; the moderator should thank the offender and then call on someone else. The social butterfly likes to chat, the narcissist is dressed up and uses the camera as a mirror, and the joker adds some flavor but the jokes should be self-directed, not at others' expense.

I don't consider the transition from conference calls to Zoom meetings a positive advancement. I know what my coworkers look like, and the materials we're discussing -- and the notes I'm taking -- are going to occupy my screen space anyway. Mainly the switch to Zoom means that I have to remember to turn the camera off at the end, since I don't trust other programs not to use it without my permission.

The discussion switches to Philadelphia magazine's list of 2020's 76 most influential Philadelphians. Mike is looking through the list, trying to find himself -- number one is the mayor, number 31 is the owner of the Eagles, sprinkled in are some doctors who've been particularly helpful this year -- and there's his name, listed under number 64. But he's not 64th himself; it's his coanchor Alex, who has mentioned him and has more followers than him and the mayor together.

I'll confess to a nostalgia for shows such as "Good Day Philadelphia," since during my office-job days of 20 years ago I'd put on "Good Day New York" as I was getting into my tie and jacket (then sweater, then polo shirt; thank you, casual dress). The anchors, field reporters, and weatherman would banter and joke with each other, except for the day of the fight between anchorman Jim Ryan and field reporter Dick Oliver.

After "Good Day Philadelphia" it's "The Wendy Williams Show." Somebody is being pictured by the pool at somebody's mansion, and then somebody's daughter is being given tennis lessons, all to the gasps of a virtual audience who apparently can't believe anyone would ever be poolside or learn to pick up a racket. I make a commitment to being out by ten from now on, or at least changing the channel.

The receptionist is having a better day today, since the computer is working and she's not dealing with a fire-alarm inspector and a guest trying to occupy the same room.

"Where are you walking today?" she asks.

"Wildwood," I say. "Not so far."

She assumes a concerned look. "Be careful." I cock my head in puzzlement. "North Wildwood and Wildwood Crest are nice, but the main part of Wildwood is...urban-y. Try to stay on the main streets, or walk on the boardwalk."

My ears twitch, not at the idea that Wildwood could be so wild, but because the gratuitous addition of "-y" to words sounds childish to me, especially when the words are already adjectives themselves.

"Thanks for the advice," I say, and I head out. I like the Colonnade. Sure, it has its quirks, such as the 19 individually owned rooms, the policy of taking payment for the base rate in advance but charging the taxes in person, and an insultingly worded mandate about my room on its Web site: "Guests staying in this room must find street parking." Must I, now? For what, then? But apart from such presumption -- along the lines of meteorologists telling me I need an umbrella when I can assure you I don't -- I was happy with the hotel and would stay again.

I walk along the waterfront for a while and then head back to Landis Avenue, which will take me over the bridge to the next strip of land, which in turn will bring me to the following series of bridges to Wildwood. Almost a century old, the Townsends Inlet Bridge is a drawbridge that was heavily damaged during Hurricane Sandy eight years ago (almost to the day) and has been closed off and on for repairs ever since. Fortunately, today it's open, and people are fishing from it.

I walk along a rocky seawall and then enter Avalon at the intersection with Seventh Street; I don't realize until I've walked an hour that I won't hit the start of the next bridge until 117th Street. Today's directions are simple, but simple doesn't equal short.

Avalon becomes Stone Harbor, which has a gift shop called Seas the Day and plenty of taffy and fudge; there's more activity than in Sea Isle City but it's still quiet. Then it's a two-mile fling over the next bridge complex, which traverses the amusingly named Nummy Island, a salt marsh that's home to many seabirds. Today it's the egrets on view, a trio of them that take off in sync as I approach.

Finally I descend into North Wildwood. A sign says, "Next Left Anglesea Dr and Nite Club Businesses." This is New Jersey, so "next left" means an exit to the right -- this is one of the state's famous "jug handles," where to turn left you bear right off the road, loop around, and wait for the light in order to cross the road you were on. As a walker, of course, I could make the left, but at 2:00 on a Tuesday afternoon in the off-season there probably won't be much nightlife to be found.

Instead, I head into the Star Diner & Café. This one has the retro look down pat, with neon lettering, a light-green exterior, and a spaceship-like typeface for "Star." The building resembles a submarine. A song is playing that has the lyric "Breathe me in, breathe me out/I don't know if I could ever go without" and the composer has somehow chosen to highlight the lack of a rhyme ("out" and "...out" are the same thing, not a rhyme) by having the two lines end on the same note. I miss the '50s music of the Red Lion back in Southampton.

The menu is 2-2-.25 and many of the headings and options follow the extraterrestrial theme. There are "Mercury Hot Sandwiches" and "Rings of Saturn Club Sandwiches." I realize I haven't had a burger in a diner yet, and of the "Nebula Burgers" the most interesting is the Galaxy Burger, with hot Italian sausage (meat on meat!) and American cheese. It's about five minutes beyond rare but the sausage lends a welcome spice, and the bun is sweet and soft and provides good support to what it encloses.

I see signs referring to the Hereford Inlet Lighthouse, but I don't see it, and I can't tell whether it still exists. I follow the walkway along the ocean and suddenly I catch its yellow tower protruding from among pine trees, a short distance inland. I'm not one of those people who go gaga over lighthouses, but this one is stunning, elegantly rectangular and with an upper terrace supported by artful corbels. It's attached to a house with similarly geometric support beams and pillars, and it's fronted by a small garden. The lighthouse was finished in 1874 and moved a short distance to its current location in 1913; it still functions and broadcasts its beam for 15 miles.

Some enchanting beacon,
Poking through the treetops.
Poking through the treetops
Beside a choppy sea.
It catches my eye,
Its timelessness calls.
I stop and revere its intense yellow walls.

Some enchanting beacon,
Like a castle's tower.
What a stately tower
Beside a choppy sea.
And night after night,
It still casts its glow,
A lamp that the next generations will know.

Stalwart, commanding,
Never gonna fall.
Through every season,
Standing proud and tall.

Some enchanting beacon,
Cradled by a terrace,
Cradled by a garden
Beside a choppy sea.
It's shone through the years,
Protecting the ships
Through snow, wind, and rain, and through every eclipse.

May it remain and shine forevermore.
May it remain and shine forevermore!

I ascend the ramp to the boardwalk ("Through This Arch Walk the Happiest People in the World") and follow it for a mile and a half to the Days Inn & Suites. Wildwood is like Atlantic City without the casinos: a long boardwalk lined with souvenir shops, arcades, tattoo parlors, amusement-park rides, a hotdog stand called Grab a Wiener, and desserts to draw castigation from your dentist. On one side is a wide beach with hard-packed sand; on the other is a string of motels whose names evoke exotic lands: Acropolis, Jade East, Matador, Sahara, Montego Bay Resort and Conference Center.

Except that this is late October in a pandemic year, so even though the temperature is in the 60s and it's sunny, all but three of the storefronts have their gates down. I pass hundreds before I see the first person ready to make a sale; it's a place offering funnel cakes, ice cream, and deep-fried Oreos. The next one sells sunglasses, and the one after that sweatshirts, and then I pass the convention center -- there should be an RV show there this week, according to the packed calendar of town events posted sometime before April in the elevator of the Days Inn, but like most of them, the show was not to be.

I check into the hotel and have to deal with some shenanigans regarding the bill: They've overcharged me by a full night because I changed the date of my stay and they never returned the prepaid (but refundable) amount for the second, and they've overcharged me by a dollar because they think I want to use the safe in the room, and I'm supposed to ask for it back. For the first I'll have to call Wyndham, the parent company of Days Inn; for the latter the friendly receptionist picks out a dollar in cash.

I talk a walk around town. There are several diners, all closed for the season; only the Star, where I lunched, remains open, almost an hour back toward Stone Harbor. Most businesses are shut until May except for a cluster of eateries around the road that becomes the highway headed inland.

If I feel any unease, it's because of the warning from the Colonnade Inn's receptionist; Wildwood is nowhere near as seedy as parts of Atlantic City. The houses aren't as grand as in Avalon or Sea Isle City, but they look well-kept, and I have no sense of danger. On the one hand, I don't know the area as well as she, but on the other, if I'd been told nothing, I'd have felt perfectly safe.

Still, the most interesting place to walk is the boardwalk, so I head back up there. There are a few people on bicycles, a few with dogs (there's a dog park off on the beach side), and a few sitting and enjoying the sunset. I go to the one snack shop that's open. No one is there when I arrive; I walk in for a moment and prepare to leave, but then the proprietor (and chef) arrives from a few buildings away.

The place offers a platter of deep-fried desserts for $9: three fried Oreos, a fried Twix, a fried piece of cookie dough, and a fried Reese's peanut-butter cup. I can't resist. I'll have some of them now, I think, and I'll save the rest for later. He makes them fresh; it takes about five minutes.

"How late are you open?" I ask. It's sunset -- around six -- and I'm surprised he's still there.

He thinks I mean this year. "Just this week," he says. "Until the end of October." A few more places will be open on the weekend, but he's closing up for the season after that.

All the fried pieces come out circular, except one, which resembles a map of the continental United States. Everything is covered in powdered sugar, to various depths; it's snowed in the lower plains states and Pacific Northwest, but California and New England are dry. I have one of the Oreos and it hadn't occurred to me how much the cookie would melt in the scalding fryer; it's smooth and gooey. The cookie dough has a hint of banana, but that may be the texture talking.

I realize that I am going to eat these all right away, after all. I wiggle off a piece of Florida and that turns out to be the Twix, the chunkiest of the lot and the only one that's retained something of its original form. I've been provided about 50 napkins but of course the powdered sugar gets all over my jacket.

Dinner is at the Dogtooth Bar & Grill, named for a kind of fast-moving tuna. They have a large and enticing selection of seafood, meats, and appetizers, but all I want is the Jersey Harvest salad: mixed greens, green apples, feta cheese, candied walnuts, raisins, and tomatoes. The dressing is too thick and sour for my liking and the feta is reminiscent of that other weird diner item, cottage cheese, but it's nice to eat things that came from plants.

Go on to day 14